An early set piece and then stifling defense? That’s page one of Sporting Kansas City’s playbook, a plan that’s consistently brought success under Peter Vermes. Tonight in New York, we got to see that plan in action again, with an early goal from Aurelien Collin holding up for Sporting’s 1-0 win over the Red Bulls.
The win vaulted Kansas City to the top of the East for the first time this season, their 14 points now one better than Montréal. New York stays in fifth with eight points in as many games.
Collin, as he’s apt to do once or twice a month, had a night where he looked like the league’s best defender. In the 13th minute, he beat Jamison Olave to a near-post corner from Graham Zusi to put KC up 1-0, giving an early lead to the one team you don’t want finding the first goal. At the end of the field, he relished what turned into a small battle between himself and fellow Frenchman Thierry Henry. With Henry’s tendency to go left, Collin was always going to be challenged more than Matt Besler, and he stepped up: eight interceptions; eight clearances; six headers won; four tackles; two blocked shots. With help from the rest of the defense, Collin limited Henry to one 16th minute shot on goal.
Higher up the pitch, things were even more encouraging for Sporting. They looked like the same feisty, intent team that pestered teams into submission last year, when Roger Espinoza was patrolling midfield. Vermes may not have fully replaced the Honduran international, but if keeps getting efforts like tonight’s (when Sporting pestered New York relentlessly before taking their lead), Kansas City won’t take the big step back some were expecting when they lost the new Latic.
Eventually New York raised their level of play and were able to keep the ball for prolonged periods of time (attempting 431 passes on the night), but held at arms length by timely KC challenges, the Red Bulls only put three shots on goal. That’s less a reflection of their lack of quality than Kansas City’s stalwart defending. Against most of the league, New York would have probably broken through, but against an in-form Sporting, even energetic forays from Henry and Fabian Espinola couldn’t threaten Jimmy Nielsen. At no point did it seem like Kansas City would give up their lead.
At halftime Mike Petke expressed disappointed with this team’s performance, and given his team didn’t a result at home, the Red Bulls’ boss is bound to see tonight as a failure. But Wednesday’s outcome may have been more about what Sporting did right than what New York did wrong. Anytime you give Kansas City the first goal, you’re in for a long night, not matter how well you play going forward.